The Big L
The essence of the debate is over whether the following statement is true or not:
That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer.
There are a bunch of secondary issues as well: whether “limited atonement” is a good term, whether TULIP as an acronym distorts or accurately represents the doctrines it refers to, whether it makes a difference if limitation is moved from the atonement of Christ to his priestly intercession, and whether preaching the gospel is harder if you can’t say that Jesus died for your listeners. At times, this makes the discussion confusing, because it’s not always clear whether the five pointer, in this case Matt, is objecting to the doctrine of limited atonement - that Christ did not die for all, but only for the elect - or to the phrase. But from his most recent post, it seems clear that he believes in the doctrine, although he doesn’t like the phrase:
You ask whether I consider this statement of the Remonstrance to be true or false. To which I say that its emphasis is false, placing as it does salvation in the hands of those who are dead in their sins rather than in the hands of God who alone can bring the dead to life ... [But] Limited Atonement is not a helpful phrase and one I choose not to use.
This is very clarifying. And I completely accept Matt’s point that winsome phraseology is important in theological debate, and as such he can choose to avoid using any terms he likes, however apt or otherwise they may be. (For my part, I think TULIP isn’t bad, as acronyms go, and I find the doctrine that Christ did not die for all men just as troubling as the phrase “limited atonement”. But Matt disagrees, and I respect that).
So the main debate between us is fairly simple. We all agree that the atonement benefits nobody who does not respond in faith to the proclamation of the gospel - and that there are in fact some who do not respond in faith, and hence do not enjoy the benefits of the atonement. In that sense, we all agree both that the atonement is “limited” in its scope, and that it is not efficacious unless faith is present. But the question on the table is: what is the reason for some responding in faith and not others? The Canons of Dort argue that faith in the elect is effectually caused by the death of Christ for them (2:8). For my part, the reason for some believing and not others may be expressed biblically in terms of election or regeneration, but I cannot think of a single biblical text, or biblical writer, that indicates faith (what the Canons of Dordt called “the unique gift of mercy”) is effectually caused by Christ’s having died for some and not for others. Matt, I take it, disagrees:
Multiple scriptures (e.g. John 6:35-40; 10:11; 17:1-11, 20, 24-26; Eph 1:3-10; 5:25-27; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24) point us in the direction of particular redemption.
Exegetically, I cannot see that there is any support in any of these texts for the idea that faith is brought about in some and not others by the death of Christ - and I can’t help wondering whether any exegete, were they not already committed to the five point system, would conclude that there was. (I have never seen a critical scholar who is not a committed Calvinist make the case that any of these texts were originally written to indicate this). Christ died for his people, for sure (whether pictured as sheep, a bride, or whomever), but that does not mean that the faith of those who follow him is brought about effectually by his death for them. So my assurance does not rest on the fact that Christ’s death was for me in a way that it was not for others. It rests on the fact that Jesus died for me, and that through repentance, faith and baptism - each of which have come about as a result of God’s gracious initiative - I am in Christ, the Father has adopted me, and the Holy Spirit lives in me and guarantees that I will receive the promised future inheritance.
Moreover, there are texts which seem to teach clearly that Christ did die for all people. There’s John 3:16, of course. (If, as sometimes happens, five-point Calvinists argue that “the world” does not mean “every individual”, then to be consistent they should stop saying that God loves every individual as well – as David Pawson, for quite different reasons, already has). Then there’s 1 Timothy 4:10, which describes God as “the Saviour of all people, especially those who believe”. How does a five-point Calvinist understand that text? (I know there are interpretations, of course; I’m just asking five-point readers to nail their colours to the mast on it.)
Or what about, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). For John, the “world” and the “whole world” are not terms that mean “individuals from within every people group” – which would be convenient to the five-point system – but terms which connote fallen humanity in its entirety (cf. 5:19 and frequently in 1 John). So John appears to be saying that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice was for everyone. In fact, he seems to be explicitly stating that Limited Atonement is not just an unhelpful phrase, but an unbiblical idea: “not for ours only…” Yet if many Calvinists are to be believed, this sort of statement robs the gospel of its power, and makes us Pelagians; for Matt, it “offers no hope at all.” I disagree. And I think John would as well.
So I think the Remonstrants were right, and that I can confidently tell people that Jesus died for them, whether I know they are among the elect or not. What a relief.